Drawing Lines in the Sand: Why Partitioning Syria May be the Only Means to Managing an Enduring Civil War (Part 1)

Posted By September 28, 2018 No Comments

The below is Part One of Two of one of the winning papers from our inaugural “Langley Hope Academic Excellence in Security and Defence Commentary Award Programme.” Stay tuned for Part Two next week.

With over seven years of bloodshed on all fronts of the Syrian civil war, and with no reasonable solution in sight, it is important to ask if separation of ethnic groups through partition is a feasible strategy to manage ethnic conflict, or is such an approach actually a conflict waiting to happen? Syria, like the Middle East as whole, is a state in which its borders are the design of colonial Europe’s imagination, drawn up after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War. As such, Syria is a relatively young state. Nevertheless, in 2011, governing with an iron fist, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad began repressing dissent and imprisoning political dissidents. As anti-government protests intensified throughout the state in the spring of 2011, following the onset of the “Arab Spring” movement, hostile clashes between the state and its people eventually descended into a tumultuous ethnic civil war; resulting in pro-Assad and anti-Assad factions increasingly becoming fractured along sectarian lines. Even after seven years of bloodshed and the sheer destruction of Syria, President Assad refuses to relinquish his reign of power peacefully, even though it is acknowledged that he will never be able to restore his authority throughout the entirety of the state. Such rising ethnic tension represents many of the cleavages occurring in the broader Muslim world. What began as a rebellion against the Assad regime has now transformed into an existential sectarian war; it has become a world fragmented by ethnicity and at war with itself, in which none believe they can survive in a Syria dominated by their foes.[1] As such, this paper seeks to demonstrate the viability of state partitioning with an overarching control regime as a conflict management tool to be implemented in Syria. Specifically, this paper argues that conflict management by means of partitioning Syria into three contiguous cantons under a federal framework, with President Bashar Al-Assad maintaining power through a control regime, is essential to managing ethnic conflict and thus, providing stability to a state decimated by the enduring civil war.


Kaufmann’s conflict management theory of partitioning and Lustick’s theory of control regimes will provide the basis of this paper, supported by qualitative data analysis for its proposed application in Syria. Taking this into consideration, in order to address the research question of interest, it was of importance to implement an explanatory methodology of research by means of policy, scenario, and literature analysis in order to achieve appropriate conclusions. When it comes to the explanation, however, it was important not to merely describe why Kaufmann and Lustick’s conflict management theories would be viable, but to offer an account of how they can be utilized to mitigate the rise of ethnic tensions in a contemporary scenario; Syria as a case in point.

Having said that, the paper analyzes the ongoing inactivity concerning political negotiations to peacefully resolve the enduring civil war in Syria. It offers an approach to conflict management in Syria that has, thus far, not been adequately considered much in academia – in the context of Syria – and only recently acknowledged in the political sphere. Thus, this paper will be divided into three sections. The first section – literature review and theoretical framework – assesses the scholarly debate on de facto partitioning of a state with an enacted control regime as conflict management tools to be utilized for ethnic wars and in turn identifies the areas of controversy in the literature. The second section – empirical analysis – advances two claims for the necessity regarding the partitioning of Syria with an overarching control regime in order to bring stability to the civil war. This section will also consider objections of such claims advanced and why they do not necessarily hold ground with regards to Syria as a case study. The third section considers recommendations and implications concerning the aforementioned conflict management strategies.

Part One: Understanding the Matter in Question

The Realities on the Ground

Consequently, any policy proposal to stabilize Syria ought to start with an objective of providing security to the estimated 16.6 million Syrians still inhabiting the state – seven million of those being internally displaced.[2] Although a considerable objective, there are three fundamental realities on the ground in Syria that must be taken into consideration in order for any policy recommendation to be considered feasible: The first is that over seven years of civil war has resulted in more than 470,000 dead and has left the state severely divided by sect and ethnicity.[3] Second, any attempts to oust the current Assad regime by building up the military power of the opposition, which has been the fundamental approach of the United States and its partners, is unlikely to succeed.[4] This Western obsession with the toppling of Assad has only prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people; if the fixation continues, instability and suffering will only grow further.[5] Third, the current battle lines on the ground, while hardly ideal, would have to be the fundamental basis of any state partitioning.[6] Given these three realities, certainly as of right now, “the best hope for halting Syria’s carnage is the acceptance of agreed upon cantons that take into account ethno-sectarian divisions and current battle lines while devolving significant power to local [cantons].”[7]
It is important to note that, like several states within the Middle East, “Syria’s ethno-sectarian breakdown is far from clean. Syria’s communities have historically intermixed, so there is no such thing as a solid stretch of land inhibited by a single community.”[8] However, the degree of hostility perpetuated by the Syrian civil war negates any solution that aspires to retain a unified state, and rather produces the need for the partitioning of warring factions. The standard used to judge the effectiveness of partition by most pro-partition scholars suggests “[b]y definition, in a country where partition creates social homogeneity along any salient social cleavage, there should be no more internal conflict between the partitioned groups.”[9] Accordingly, resolving the debate over conflict management solutions to the civil war is important not only for those who live in Syria torn apart by ethnic civil strife, but also to the policymakers of the international community that may seek intervention as a means to an end for such a war. It should be noted, however, that the content within this paper applies solely to the case of Syria; as such, it suggests the outlined conflict management strategies as tools in mitigating the civil war, and not a solution.

Literature Review

To further understand the debate regarding partitioning and control regimes, it is of importance to acknowledge the most prominent arguments for and against these two theories, and in turn, identify controversy in the literature. That said, the overwhelming consensus regarding the literature for pro-partition suggests, “That ethnic identities are hardened by war, making inter-ethnic cooperation difficult and increasing the risk that individuals will be targeted for violence simply because of their ethnic group membership.”[10] Therefore, by physically separating ethnic groups in conflict, the act of portioning a state into appropriate cantons should, if the theory holds true, promise to reduce the overall risk of the continuation or even the escalation of hostility.

However, its most passionate critics suggest “that partitions don’t solve the problems, but rather produce and multiply them in time and space”[11] and “that partition enables the state to validate the process of ethnic cleansing thus forcing minorities either to assimilate or move.”[12] As such, the conventional view surrounding this issue typically favours the preservation of multi-ethnic states, and thus, opposing partitioning of a state under most circumstances. In the view of the critics, partition as a conflict management tool “has three major flaws: it is unnecessary since ethnic identities can change so as to foster cooperation between groups; it causes immediate violence and contains seeds of future wars; and it sets a precedent that encourages other ethnic groups to demand independence.”[13]

Regarding control regimes as a means of conflict management, much of the literature suggests that “In deeply divided societies where consociational techniques have not been, or cannot be successfully employed, control may represent a model for the organization of inter-group relations that is substantially preferable to other conceivable solutions: civil war, extermination, or deportation.”[14] Although a variety of dimensions have been argued for regarding partitioning and control regimes in the post-conflict literature, a matter of controversy that often arises, as suggested by Sambanis and Schulhofer-Wohl, is that although “Theoretical arguments have been made on all sides… nearly all arguments are incomplete and their premises are often flawed.”[15] As such, the literature suggests that current empirical records cannot help researchers assess the effects of an idealized form of partition, thus we are left with the task of assessing the effects of partitioning as they actually occur;[16] Syria as a crucial case in point. Nevertheless, this paper will make the claim that de facto partition – defined as separating ethnic groups into distinct cantons under a control regime in a federal framework of governing – deserves recognition on the policy agenda as a possible means to mitigating the civil war in Syria.


Until recently, “there has been a near consensus among policymakers and scholars that the objective of ethnic conflict management should be to support and preserve integrated, multi-ethnic societies.”[17] One way of potentially achieving this has been through direct military intervention. Accordingly, over seven years of civil war has once again brought about calls for direct US military intervention in order to mitigate the growing atrocities in Syria. However, in the context of Syria’s political rivalries and geopolitical realities, it is a mistaken assumption that a conflict management strategy of utilizing direct military intervention would be successful in mitigating such a conflict.[18] Rather, intervention would only further exacerbate an already enduring civil war. Emma Ashford, a visiting fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, argues that “No form of US intervention can fix Syria’s fundamental problems: fragmentation, internecine infighting, and the utter lack of any unified anti-Assad coalition.”[19] For this reason, if there is one fundamental lesson that should be drawn from past US interventions is that of the failure of mass deployment of ground troops and, in turn, the neglecting of a political solution. Not only does such a strategy have substantial financial costs, but also it will surely lead to the unnecessary loss of soldiers’ and civilian lives and recreates the power vacuum that initially gave rise to violent non-state actors, such as ISIS. Moreover, “The risks associated with further US intervention in Syria are significant, including the potential for a direct conflict with Russia, or for broader regional war.”[20]

Considering the aforementioned failures associated with interventionism, the application of a conflict management theory entailing the de facto partitioning of warring ethnic factions, combined with a robust control regime, has been gaining considerable support. Academics such as Chaim Kaufmann, and politicians – particularly former US Secretary of State John Kerry – have come to view state partitioning as a best possible management tool to many of the most hostile ethnic conflicts. Although the theory remains somewhat controversial as the partitioning of a state may be accompanied by an increase in ethnic tensions and violence, Syria may prove to be a deviant case in which a de facto partition is the most feasible option, if not the only option at this point in the conflict. With that said, Kaufmann’s development regarding the usefulness of partition as a viable conflict management tool to civil war, along with the implementation of control regimes as advanced by Ian Lustick, will provide for a theoretical basis of the paper’s analysis.

Chaim Kaufmann’s Theory of Partitioning

Kaufmann argues, “Stable resolutions of ethnic civil wars are possible…. But only when the opposing groups are demographically separated into defensible enclaves… This means that to save lives… the international community must abandon attempts to restore war-torn multi-ethnic states. Instead, it must facilitate and protect population movements to create true national homelands.”[21] With that said, the debate over partition has produced a limited understanding of its application due to the differing definitions of the conflict management strategy. Since this paper argues for a de facto partition of Syria, it is of importance to distinguish such from a de jure partition. According to Sambanis and Schulhofer-Wohl, de jure partition is defined as partitions that result in separate sovereign states; whereas de facto partition, typically following ceasefires, establishes few, if any, new institutional arrangements for governance, but divides sovereignty over the territory of a single internationally recognized state while under a control regime within a federal framework of governing.[22] In other words, de facto partition entails a decision-making environment that falls between the three cantons of Syria,[23] and as such, “reduces only a little number of decisions that must be reached jointly, but privileges issues relating to the decision rights of the authorities in the secessionist entity in all joint decision-making.”[24]

Ian Lustick’s Theory of Control Regimes

In Stability in Deeply Divided Societies: Consociationalism versus Control (1979), Lustick suggests “compromise, bargaining, and accommodation as methods for achieving stability in deeply divided societies.”[25] Specifically, he suggests that a control regime can thus be utilized as an alternative means of power-sharing in order to establish stability in states devastated by civil strife. Where a partition is to occur, but there is inter-group control or domination, and as such no indication of a negotiated peace, Lustick argues that a control regime model is appropriate “to the extent that stability… [will be] the result of the sustained manipulation of subordinate segment(s) by a superordinate segment.”[26] Specifically, stability within a deeply divided society can be “accounted for by the effective exertion of the superior power of one sub-unit as by the ‘cooperative efforts’ of rival sub-unit elites.”[27]

Essentially, the role of the official regime in the control system within a deeply divided society “is that of the legal and administrative instrument of the superordinate segment or group…. Staffed overwhelmingly by personnel from the superordinate segment, [it] uses what discretion is available in the interpretation and implementation of official regulations to benefit the sub-unit which it represents at the expense of the subordinate segment.”[28] Nevertheless, in particular cases such as Syria, Lustick would argue that with President Assad showing no indication of devolving absolute power, a form of a control regime might be preferable to the chaos and bloodshed that might be the only alternatives.[29]